This painting has been displayed in a Maltese church in memory of an African migrant and father who was murdered in what is believed to be Malta’s first racially motivated killing.
The memorial has been praised by many who say it raises awareness about an important issue but also criticism from online trolls who attacked the memorial as ‘biased’ and ‘damaging to the image of the church’.
The painting depicts Lassana Cisse Souleymane 42, a migrant from the Ivory Coast who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Southern Malta in 2019.
Lassana left behind two children and the investigation has so far led to two Maltese soldiers being charged for killing Lassana and injuring two other migrants during the shooting. The trial of the two suspects is currently underway.
The Times of Malta reports that Lassana’s murder is believed to be the first official racially motivated killing in the nation’s history and its aftermath has resulted in heated debate on the island nation that has found itself at the forefront of the migration crisis.
Manuel Farrugia, a Maltese artist who was born on the island in 1989, created the painting of Lassana for the parish church of St George located in the city of Victoria in Malta’s Gozo locality.
The painting forms part of the Fejn hu Ħuk? (Where’s your brother?) project and depicts Lassana with two figures on either side of him.
The news site Lovin Malta reports that the woman engrossed in her phone represent society whilst the priest represents the church.
Artisi Manuel and the Church that commissioned him have received mixed feedback with some people praising them for raising awareness about the plight of migrants on the island whilst others suggested the church was being biased and promoting ‘fake news’.
Lovin Malta reports that Mario Vella, a member of the Maltese rock band Brikkuni, was one of those that heaped praise on the project saying: “It is possibly the most important piece of local art from the last decade – and I’m not saying it ironically.”
The X Factor Malta judge Howard Keith Debono responded to Vella stating “I couldn’t agree more.”
However, the positive reception was swiftly followed by more negative comments from netizens on social media.
The Malta Times reported last Friday, 29th October, that one Facebook user wrote: “Oh, come on, are we serious? There were so many Maltese who were murdered, where is their painting? You bunch of lackeys!”
Another wrote: “It’s unbelievable what the Maltese church has come to.”
A variety of other comments were left claiming that the project somehow constituted ‘fake news’ and would push people away from the church.
Manuel told the Malta Times in reaction to the comments: “The reaction angered me so much. Why all this hatred? How could such a small thing… a small painting… lead to so much hate? Why do people feel so threatened?”
He added: “I expected some reaction of course, but not this. It is worse than expected. As an artist, I have a duty to represent the times through my work. I work mainly on sacred art but how can we move forward if all we see are works based on biblical episodes?”
Archpriest Joseph Curmi told the Malta Times he was less surprised than the artist about the reaction but nonetheless disappointed.
Curmi said: “Of course, I felt some anger initially, but we are unfortunately used to it. My aim now is to understand where all this is coming from.”
He added that some members of the parish were initially sceptical about the project but since its completion, about four months ago, he has not received any complaints.
Owen Bonnici, Malta’s Equality Minister, said that the murder of Lassana is a “stark reminder that unchecked hate speech could lead to hate crimes with tragic consequences.”
He added: “Hatred goes against the sense of humanity which is at the core of our values as a Maltese nation.”